It was a pandemic-era success story.
A little-used emergency rental assistance program proved to be a key piece of the puzzle of policies that warded off a wave of evictions in Massachusetts during the height of the pandemic, funneling hundreds of millions of dollars to struggling renters and their landlords over the last few years.
Funding for that program, known as Rental Assistance for Families in Transition, or RAFT, was supercharged by federal COVID relief aid that’s now dwindling. But advocates in a new report argue that RAFT’s success during the pandemic has proved that flexible rental aid programs could be a crucial short-term solution to a housing crisis that disproportionately harms renters, and should be a top focus for legislators in next year’s budget.
The report — published Thursday by The Boston Foundation, the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, and the United Way of Massachusetts — argues that an infusion of $250 million from the Legislature, along with some key policy tweaks, would allow RAFT to meet the demand of vulnerable renters even as the pandemic eases.
“The reality of the housing crisis is that we know there are still a significant number of tenants who are really struggling and at risk of losing their home, and there’s not enough RAFT money to go around,” said Jessie Partridge Guerrero, a research manager at MAPC. “Fully funding this program, and tweaking it to make sure it reaches the people who need it most, is a key strategy.”
RAFT has been on the books in Massachusetts for decades, originally designed as a backstop to help renters get through rough patches without being evicted. But it took on a new form during the pandemic, sustaining thousands of tenants who lost jobs when the Baker administration poured money into it after state and federal eviction moratoriums expired. The boosted pandemic version of the program offered tenants up to $10,000 a year in relief, paid directly to their landlords.
Those emergency funds are now evaporating, and Governor Maura Healey in her proposed budget for the coming fiscal year allocated $162 million for RAFT, with households eligible for $7,000 over a period of two years. The Senate’s proposed budget includes $195 million for RAFT.
But still, that level of funding would mean that “some with the greatest need won’t get the full resources to remain in their current housing,” the report said.
In the absence of some other pandemic-era tenant protections, eviction filings have returned to pre-pandemic levels this year.
Increasing rental assistance in some capacity is a rare policy that both landlords and tenants groups support, because the aid backstops landlords when tenants can’t pay, and evictions and turnover in rental units are generally costly for all involved.
Allocating $250 million for the program, the report said, would be enough to repurpose RAFT as a longer-term rental aid tool that would help fill in the gaps — years-long waitlists and too-high rents even on income-restricted units — left behind by voucher programs and other affordable housing options.
That additional funding would also help address what advocates describe as some of RAFT’s key flaws. As it stands, they say, the current application process is far too complex, and not effectively advertised. A streamlined application system and funding for local community groups that help struggling renters apply for the aid could help solve that issue.
In shifting the program to serve as a long term rental aid option, advocates say, the state should also end a rule that currently requires tenants to receive a notice to quit, the first step in the state’s court-supervised eviction process, to be eligible for relief. Often, the report said, tenants view a notice to quit as a formal eviction and simply leave their home without first applying for aid.
Requiring the threat of an eviction to be eligible for relief “is counterproductive to RAFT’s purpose,” said Guerrero.
The state should also evaluate the process through which tenants receive the relief funds if they have their application approved, the report said. As it stands, landlords are required to submit certain documents for tenants to receive RAFT relief, and some landlords are unresponsive or simply refuse to supply the documents.
Simply requiring application materials from renters, and then sending them the relief money instead of their landlord, could theoretically eliminate that issue, though such a tweak would need to be studied carefully, the report said.
“What we’re proposing is to make this program work better for the people who need it,” said Maritza Crossen, director of strategic initiatives at CHAPA. “That means an application process that makes sense, and support for the community groups that are helping tenants receive this relief.”